BlacKKKlansman (Possible Spoiler Alert)
There was exactly one black person at the showing of BlacKKKlansman I went to last night.
The Upstate Theater, Rhinebeck’s indie film temple, was packed. We’d stood in line for 20 minutes to snag so-so seats in the very last row. He was one of the very last people to arrive.
I fantasized I could read the expression on his face in the dark theater. A kind of internal eye-rolling. WTF? he was thinking.
At the end of the movie, many of the white people watching it clapped.
I tried to find the black man again to see what his reaction was, but he had disappeared.
When I got home, I immediately Googled to find the other theaters where BlacKKKlansman might be playing locally.
Ho-kay! It was playing on one screen at the Cinemaplex in the local mall!
That means that more than one black person may actually see it.
The target demographic for BlacKKKlansman is clearly not black people.
It’s people like me — that is to say, white people whose politics skew left and who recall the era in which the film takes place with affection. We remember Afros! We know who Stokely Carmichael is! (Though the more pedantic among us were muttering, “Not Black Panthers, SNCC!” during that particular segment of the film.) Many of us are Jews, so we are pleased as Punch with the mantle of inclusiveness that Spike Lee throws over hair picks and Stars of David alike.
I wouldn’t say BlacKKKlansman is Spike Lee’s best film since Do the Right Thing; I’m a big fan of Clockers and Jungle Fever myself.
What I would say is that BlacKKKlansman is Spike Lee’s most affecting film since Do the Right Thing, and possibly even more affecting than Do the Right Thing.
BlacKKKlansman didn’t make me feel as though Spike Lee was rejecting me because I’m white.
BlacKKKlansman felt as though Spike Lee was inviting me to join the Good Fight.
More than any other director except possibly Michael Moore or Sasha Baron Cohen, Lee is a director with a political agenda. His box office success must be measured in hearts and minds as well as in dollars.
I think Do the Right Thing is a great movie, but I confess, I walked out of it feeling somewhat outraged on behalf of Danny Aiello. Hey! He wasn’t a bad guy. He didn’t create the fuckin’ system. He was as much a victim as Mookie.
There’s no ambiguity about bad guys and good guys in BlacKKKlansman.
And guess what? I’m one of the good guys!
BlacKKKlansman’s ending is particularly strong.
The one really unsuccessful part of the movie is a romance between the titular character and an Angela Davis lookalike that adds absolutely nothing to the movie but that, I suppose, had to be thrown in so that no critic could complain that Spike Lee shortchanges female characters.
The final scene of Lee’s own footage utilizes the director’s signature dolly-on-wheels glide. The black cop and his activist girlfriend — styled to look like early 70s blaxploitation stars — slide expressionlessly toward a locked door with a keyhole shaped like a burning cross.
The movie cuts to documentary footage from Charlottesville, taken exactly one year ago.
Nazis marching and chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”
Nazis driving their cars into crowds.
Donald Trump, a dead ringer for George Orwell’s Napoleon the Pig, declaring his support for the marching Nazis.
Very, very powerful.
You walk out of the theater thinking, What can I do to stop this from ever happening again?
Motifs that made me squirm in BlacKKKlansman:
(1) Various off-the-cuff references to racially determined disparities in intelligence.
No, I have never in my life thought differences in intelligence were at all linked to race.
Recently, I came dangerously close to going out on a date with someone who railed for 20 minutes on the lack of quantum mechanics physicists among individuals of African descent.
“And don’t tell me Neil deGrasse Tyson!” he fumed. “Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist! And he’s only half black.”
“Uh, there’s a difference between quantum mechanics physicists and astrophysicists?” I asked.
I didn’t go out with this person. But the point is I considered going out with this person. Fleetingly. But still.
Moreover, I did not say to this person, “You are full of shit and a goddamn racist. Go fuck yourself.”
And I should have.
Seeing BlacKKKLansman made me reexamine my own culpability in this encounter. Made me ashamed — though not in an irredeemable way. I will do better in the future, I thought.
And I will.
(2) Linguistic prejudice.
Interesting that both the summer’s blackcentric movies (the other is Sorry to Bother You) deal with black speech patterns versus white speech patterns.
I’d only just moved from Oakland, California in the mid-1990s when Oakland’s school board decided that Ebonics was not a dialect but a distinct language, kind of like pidgin or Creole. The decision created a tsunami of controversy across the nation.
The school board actually used the term “genetically-based language” in its decree.
Are there other “genetically-based” languages? Is English a “genetically-based” language? Is Arabic? Norwegian? How about Ukrainian?
At that time, Oakland was still a predominantly black city. Once upon a time, a group of black students at Laney — Oakland’s community college — had banded together to form the Black Panther Party. It’s difficult, then, to see the decision to confer this designation upon Ebonics — the school board’s fancy term for vernacular black English — as anything other a strategy meant to strengthen black self-identity. It was a good thing that black people didn’t talk like white people, in other words. That there was this difference.
Fast-forward a quarter of a century, and things have changed.
Sure, I play that game. Listening to NPR or podcasts. Amusing myself by trying to collect as much personal info as possible about the disembodied voices droning through my ear buds.
For some reason, I’m much more fascinated by trying to identify Asian-American speakers than I am by trying to identify black American speakers. It’s a harder game.
But anyway, can you tell when an American radio voice is black?
I think much of the time, yes, you can. Because accent and inflexion. Nothing whatsoever to do with the anatomical structures of the respective speakers.
I absolutely cannot tell who’s black and who’s white when I’m listening to speakers with British accents.
When I get agitated over the phone, my vowels get flat and nasal; I go singsong. From time to time, I’ve been interrupted by whatever speaker I’m talking to: “Forgive me for asking, but I gotta know: Are you Italian?”
Why, yes, kind sir. That is indeed the origin of my distinctive speech patterns though I would dispute the allegation that my words are a “genetically-based language.”
The various discussion of standard English versus jive-talk throughout BlacKKKlansman were funny, and even funnier still in Sorry to Bother You where they serve as the main plot point.
But, sorry, Spike; sorry, Boots Riley: I don’t think noticing differences in speech patterns is a form of racism.